Two Decades On Planet E: Carl Craig Interviewed
, March 2nd, 2011 10:30
Carl Craig talks to John Doran about twenty years of Planet E, creative independence and Throbbing Gristle
Carl Craig is an innovator and originator. While still in college in the 1980s he forged links with Derrick May, one of the Bellville Three. He tuned into the May Day's show on WJLB and was soon converted from being a Prince and Led Zeppelin fan into wanting to make sleek, synthesizer muisc. He dreamed of making a track that May would play on the radio and after months of trying, this is what happened. He rapidly became the most prominent of the second wave Detroit techno producers, possibly because of his adventurous attitude toward house music and his musicality. (It is surely the latter which has seen him work in fields as diverse as jazz, classical and soundtrack, when many of his contemporaries 'settle' for making electronic dance.)
His influence was felt almost immediately as a producer on May's Rythim Is Rhythim project. (CC's sublime touch can be heard on tracks such as 'Drama', 'Kaotic Harmony' and the 1989 reworking of 'Strings Of Life'.) But after a year or two of releasing material on his mentor's Transmat, he started his own label Planet E in 1991.
From the get go he started flexing his muscles, releasing filthy urban electro as 69, sophisticated proto d&b as Bug In The Bass Bin and even started adding disco into the mix with Paperclip People. This year sees the twentieth anniversary of Planet E and to celebrate two decades of forward looking electronic dance music he's hitting the road and playing a string of gigs with the likes of Ricardo Villalobos, Sven Vath, Dubfire, Seth Troxler and Radioslave. Add to this a compilation which has been hogging the limelight on the Quietus stereo, Twenty F@%&ing Years Of Planet E which takes in stone cold classics like Martin Buttrich's 'Full Clip' and Innerzone Orchestra's 'Bug In The Bassbin' and a series of vinyl only remixes and you've got a birthday bash worth talking about. So we caught up with Carl recently to see how the preparations were going.
I guess I should start by saying happy 20th anniversary for Planet E. Can you tell us a bit about the tour you’ve got coming up to mark this occasion and who some of the special guests are?
Carl Craig: The tour is a celebration of making it to twenty and it’s the first anniversary that we’ve done; we didn’t do a five, ten or fifteen. The guests are all people who have either had a direct or a listening relationship with the label, but no matter what, they’re friends and I have a lot of respect for them. We have Luciano and K. Dixon, who is also known as Moodyman, Radioslave, Agoria and then we’re grabbing friends as we go through the year. We’re looking at making a year-long celebration out of it and take it all around.
Also the album Twenty F@%&ing Years Of Planet E is an embarrassment of riches in terms of the material that features on it. How did you whittle it down to the 25 tracks that are on there?
CC: Monty Luke, who works at the label, came up with a list of things that he felt would be good to have on the album and of course, he came up with a list of a couple of hundred tracks! And it’s not really feasible to go that far. We tried to focus more on the legacy of the label, covering the history and perhaps including a few tracks that were unreleased. Maybe some tracks that were a little less known like Urban Tribe’s ‘Repeating Decimal’ which had only been on a compilation before.
And to put all this in a contemporary context you’ve also asked such singular talents as Ricardo Villalobos, Dubfire and Richie Hawtin to remix classic tracks for some vinyl releases. Which of these tracks have you heard so far and what are they sounding like?
CC: Luciano did a mix of Recloose’s ‘Can’t Take It’ and it’s a very trippy, entrancing version, y’know [Basic] Channel style. Agoria has done a mix of ‘Where Am I’ by Tribe. We have a Kirk Degiorgio remix of Martin Buttrich’s ‘Full Clip’ and I’m waiting on some of our friends to submit their mixes. I’m not trying to rush anyone because I know how difficult it is to be on the road and to do creative stuff in the studio. There’s time for the other mixes to come in.
Whether it’s serendipity or just the way that things come in cycles, it feels like a good time for this to be happening. Right across the board there has been a massive resurgence in interest in music that is being made with synthesized, electronic sounds... and this is not just in techno and house but in pop music, industrial and other forms of dance as well. Do you have a handle on how you and Planet E are seen by younger musicians and clubbers?
CC: I never try to predict the view of any group of people whether they’re in a scene or a group of ‘punters’ if you like. For a lot of the 20-years I’ve been trying to push boundaries as hard as I could by doing Innerzone Orchestra, by doing Tribe, by doing Versus, by doing all this music that isn’t really seen at the time by a lot of people as being really ‘music’ as such. The concept of techno is all in the head. It’s in your head and your soul. So any of the people who into Planet E are into because we try to do something a bit different and we try to push the boundaries and we don’t just settle for making music that they are comfortable with, in comparison to making music to feed a trend.
Obviously, you were well on your way to becoming established when you set Planet E up. What were your primary motivations when you started the label?
CC: Creative independence.
I guess this follows on in a way... at The Quietus we’re all massive fans of Throbbing Gristle. I know you’re a fan yourself, that’s reflected in the first release that Planet E put out [69’s ‘4 Jazz Funk Classics’] but I was wondering what it was specifically about the group, Industrial Records and how they ran their business that you found inspiring.
CC: Well it wasn’t so much the way that they did their business; for me it was all about the imagery and the music. I discovered them when I was at Mute Records. They let me go down to their stock room and pick whatever the hell I wanted to. [laughs] So, I just started grabbing stuff. Now when you think of Mute, you probably think of Depeche Mode but they weren’t my favourite. For me it was Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet as the Yaz project [Yazoo] and that’s where my interests lay.
But when I came across the Throbbing Gristle records I was like, ‘What the hell is this!?’ I like songs... even though I do a lot of hypnotic, rhythm based things I really like songs with strings... kind of like what you’d expect to hear in The Pink Panther... I’m a huge fan of elevator music. As corny as it can be, I’m a huge fan of it. So when I saw the cover of 20 Jazz Funk Greats, the one with them on the grassy knoll with that Landrover behind them... It just looked so retro to me that I just had to give it a listen, so I grabbed all the Throbbing Gristle I could get.
But when I put it on it was exactly what I wanted... without me knowing what I wanted. It really touched that for me. And myself and Sherard [Ingham] from Urban Tribe, we’d sit around and listen to it. And to kids who grew up in the hood... [laughs] we were listening to motor noise [laughs]... with them talking shit over the top of it. Whatever they were doing... it was so... so... out there and so elsewhere from anything I knew in Detroit and from what was being played on the radio. It was like we’d found some kind of underground cult we could be part of.
Talking of Throbbing Gristle and Mute... From reading interviews with other luminaries from Detroit, it’s no secret that there was more of a European aesthetic to techno compared to the more American urban influences on New York garage and Chicago house. Did you listen to things like Kraftwerk and Gary Numan when you were growing up?
CC: Yeah. Definitely. ‘Cars’ was a big record for me. It was one of the first records I bought. Kraftwerk in ‘81, that was another big thing for me when I heard Computer World for the first time. Derrick [May] and Juan [Atkins] had said that before about how they had this thing about machines and robots and what the future of the car industry was and this was what was being presented to us in the shape of Gary Numan. He wasn’t really trying to be a robot, he was more like a wax figure or something but those images really touched us as well as the music.
And the music had this kind of funk to it and we weren’t expecting the funk. Now we knew funk through George Clinton, Parliament, Funkadelic, all that music came from machine era Detroit and more of it came from nearby Ohio but when we heard this, it was like a different kind of funk. A machine funk. It really played with our imaginations. Because when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five came out, they were like dressed like cowboys and stuff but that wasn’t really enough. It wasn’t enough of a fantasy. But Kraftwerk really touched on that. Around the same time you had Blade Runner, the Star Wars movies, whether they were good or bad you had these sci-fi movies that were grabbing our attention as well. At that time you could just walk right into this fantasy world of European electronic music.
How did you first meet Derrick May and what was your work relationship like?
CC: I met Derrick through a friend of mine called Juan [Atkins] at the school that I went to at that time. I was studying musical synthesis in a class that I took. I was making tracks in this synthesis class and everyone would say, ‘Hey, why don’t you play this to May Day.’ That was his radio name for this show he had. So I got obsessed with this, ‘I’m going to make it for May Day. I’m going to give it to May Day.’ Juan told me that he had met him before and that he would introduce me which he did at this local club called The Shelter. Derrick was very open to hearing what I did. The first things I played him he didn’t like but later on he fell for something that I was working on. He felt that. As we kept working he asked me to help him with Rythim Is Rythim.
You only have to glance at a discography to see that you’ve always had multiple projects on the go, you’ve released lots of records and you’ve worked in lots of musical fields and roles. What do you put this work ethic down to?
CC: That I really enjoy my job. That’s what it comes down to. Also I’ve had the philosophy that you have to know when something is good. You can flog a dead horse but it won’t revive it. If after a certain amount of time something doesn’t work, I throw it away. If something doesn’t work in two hours, I’ll start on a new idea. I can always go back to it. It has to hit the right spot. When it does, I can move forward and finish it.
Also, I want to be a better producer, a better engineer, a better remixer, so I need to pay attention to what is going on in the music. It’s only recently that I’ve got to the point of being a relentless perfectionist because I’m trying to retrain myself to adapt to what I need to do over the next 20-years. I’ll keep going back to mix something over and over again so that I know that when I put a sound in [in his newly redesigned studio] and I hear it that way, than that’s exactly the way that it is. It takes a lot of training and practice to get to the point where you’re comfortable and where I can say, ‘Ok, I can maybe be half as prolific in the next 20-years as I was in the last 20.’
When did you first fall in love with jazz and how did you first go about applying what you learned from jazz to what you do musically. Because if you’d never heard anyone mix minimal dance music and jazz together, it might not sound like two things that would necessarily fit comfortably together.
CC: Uh, I wouldn’t say that. It depends on what kind of jazz you’re talking about. If you’re talking about Miles Davis then there are a lot of minimal elements to what he did. A Kind Of Blue is very simple in musical form. It’s very subtle. There are no fast lines being played. There are these textures in sound being made. If you listen to In A Silent Way it’s exactly the same thing in relation to the idea. It’s stripped down, minimal music. But if you think of Ornette Coleman and you want to play him over some minimal electronic music then Ok, that’s a different thing altogether. John Coltrane... the drums would get in the way... if you stripped the drums out and just had the solos you could put it over anything. It’s got that flavour and spirit already. You take Kenny G... which is non-jazz and put that over some minimal, people would be like, ‘Get the fuck out! That’s corny as hell!’
You’re obviously interested in the reputation of Detroit as an American hub of musical innovation, carrying on into the future. What kind of message are you trying to get across to the kids who take part in the educational programme you’re involved in?
CC: The main message that I’m trying to give is that we’re working in a really restrictive way now musically. What we’re listening to on the radio is not really heart-felt music. It’s music that feeds the system. What I try to get a lot of kids to understand is that there is so much music out there. There is so much to discover... so never close your mind. Keep an open mind about everything. I don’t know how much you remember about being a teenager but I remember listening to stuff and my mind being blown. I was always like, ‘What? How did that happen?!’ All kids have this from say 13 to 25, say but after then they tend to become jaded... Y'know: I’ve heard it all before, blah blah blah. I find that a lot of kids here in Detroit are getting jaded earlier than ever. There are just too many songs that sound just like L’il Wayne or like Justin Beiber or like Rhianna. Everybody’s going the same way. They’re using the same producers and stuff.
And this is an old problem! This is as old as the music industry itself but it doesn’t seem as possible to get on a mass level to get a record from an artist who is just going to take it to the next level. Kanye is trying to be that guy... When I was a kid it was Stevie Wonder. If you read the story of what Stevie Wonder did and what he had to fight to end up on top and to get his independence as a song writer... And if you knew the story of how he came to work with Tonto’s Expanding Head Band... And that's a story in itself, how Tonto’s Expanding Head Band ended up working with The Isley Brothers for example and all this soul music. They didn’t come from soul music but they were hugely influential on soul music because all these artists wanted to have that synthesized sound on their records. So it was really interesting, because all these people would be making pop records but they would all be pushing boundaries and artists were always trying to recreate themselves as artists. Like Stevie Wonder today is still so amazing because - whether you like his music now or not - he worked his ass off to make sure he had the creative voice. And I want the kids who start making music to listen to music in a way they never have before and then gather ideas to inspire them so they can also push boundaries.
And what advice would you give to someone trying to start an independent record label in the 21st Century?
CC: Ha ha ha! Start a Sound Cloud account... Ha ha ha!
Carl Craig/Planet E Live Dates
March 4th - Berghain, Berlin (Carl Craig, Kenny Larkin, Paul Woolford, Psycatron live, Reade Truth)
March 5th - Ewer Street Warehouse, London (Carl Craig, Francois K, Radio Slave, Paul Woolford, Psycatron live)
March 10th - Laeiszhalle, Hamburg (Carl Craig, Francesco Tristano, Moritz Von Oswald and the Hamburg Philharmonic play live)
March 12th - Club Passage, Vienna (Carl Craig, Paul Woolford)
March 16th - Tripod, Dublin (Carl Craig and Luciano b2b all night long)
March 18th - Paris showcase (Carl Craig, Mad Mike Banks and Jon Dixon live piano, DJ deep)
March 19th - Chibuku, Liverpool (Carl Craig, Luciano, Dennis Ferrer)
March 23rd March: The Florida Room, Miami
Planet E 20 & Desolat - Carl Craig, Loco Dice, Stacey Pullen, Martin Buttrich
March 24th - Shelbourne Hotel, poolside, Miami (Carl Craig B2B Luciano, Mirko Loko)
April 2nd - Timewarp, Manheim, Germany (Carl Craig b2b Luciano)
April 4th - Snowbombing DJ Mag party, Austria (Carl Craig, Agoria, Paul Woolford)
April 8th - Crans-Montana, Caprices Festival, Switzerland Modernity (daytime on the slopes feat Carl Craig, Ricardo Villalobos, Mirko Loko live, Radio Slave, Kenny Larkin) Caprices Festival (tent, night time Carl Craig feat. Mad Mike Banks, Dubfire)
April 13th - VERSUS Gaites Lyrique, Paris (Carl Craig performs Versus pt2)
April 14th - VERSUS Gaites Lyrique - Paris (Carl Craig, Francesco Tristano, Moriz von Oswald)
April 15th - Milan Magazini Generalli (Carl Craig, Seth Troxler)
April 16th - Madrid Klubbers Day (Carl Craig, Christian Smith, Moodymann, Psycatron (Live/av), Paul Woolford)
April 23rd - Warehouse Project, Manchester (Carl Craig, Laurent Garnier, more TBA)